Navigating returning to work after having a baby: your rights, flexible working and more

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Words: Dawn Leane

Nothing prepares you for your first child and, by extension, your first period of maternity or adoptive leave. All those carefully made plans go out the window once baby arrives and never more so than when it comes to work/family balance.

With my first pregnancy, I planned to return to work when my son was 4 months old. There was no pressure on me to do so, but I had worked hard to develop my career and didn’t want to lose ground. Cue the arrival of my son and, just like that, my priorities changed.

The intersection of motherhood and career is a substantial challenge for many women. Studies show that motherhood leads to significant personal reorientation and it is the critical period in which women, if not adequately supported, are most likely to leave the workforce.

So how should you approach talking to your employer about your maternity leave and returning to work post-baby?

The first step is to make sure you fully understand your rights – and your obligations. Once you are in employment, you have a right to take up to a year of maternity leave; 26 weeks ordinary and 26 weeks additional leave. However, there are some exceptions such as agency workers.

In most cases, the minimum leave you can take is 2 weeks. While if you want to take longer than a year, it will be at your employers discretion. Bear in mind your maternity rights won’t extend to that period.

You must advise your employer of your pregnancy at least 15 weeks before the week your baby is due. While there is no requirement to tell your employer sooner, once you’ve done so, you have the protection of maternity rights at work. 

I recommend notifying your employer in writing, to ensure no misunderstandings arise (in fact I recommend that all communication relating to your leave is in writing). Your letter should state that you’re pregnant and include the following:

  • Your expected due date
  • That you plan to take maternity leave
  • Your intended maternity leave start and end dates 

You can change your start and end dates if you wish; to change your start date you must give at least 4 weeks notice, to change the end date you must give at least 8 weeks notice.

Your employer can request a medical certificate, confirming your pregnancy and dates. It may be more efficient to include it with your notification.

Once you’ve told your employer, you can start thinking about what arrangements will work best for you when you return. Allow as much flexibility as you can; a lot can change over a year and you may find that you wish to return sooner or later than anticipated. 

If you have a partner, you may wish to share your leave with them, using parental leave and they may be entitled to share parental pay.

You can also use accrued annual leave to extend your time off, but as with additional leave, this period won’t be covered by maternity rights.

Keeping in touch days

After 2 weeks of leave, you can work for up to 10 days. These are called keeping-in-touch days and are a good way to maintain dialogue with your employer, hear about changes at work or career opportunities. It can also make for a smoother transition back to work. However, it is entirely at your discretion.

How women are integrated into the workplace following maternity leave is crucial to their decision on whether and when to return. Some employers allow mothers build up to a full-time resumption, for example increasing the number of days worked each week or work remotely for a period of time.

Flexible working after becoming a mum

You may wish to request flexible working arrangements. Employees with 26 weeks of service with the same employer have the right to request flexible working arrangements. If you believe your employer will be hesitant to agree, it may be helpful to suggest the arrangement operates for a trial period.

Understandably, mothers can be concerned that availing of flexible arrangements could negatively impact their career. But a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Marathon runners formulate a pacing strategy but will adjust it based on environmental factors. In career terms, we should recognise that there will be times when we step up the pace and other times when we hold back. Factors such as finances, health and relationships can be the environmental factors that cause us to reassess our pace.

Navigating maternity entitlements can be tricky and it is always best to be fully informed. There can be differences between maternity, adoptive and surrogacy entitlements, also between UK regions, such as Northern Ireland. 

Useful resources

Government websites are a good starting point:https://www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leave

Citizens Advice, can help with specific queries https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk.

If you experience difficulties accessing your entitlement then https://www.jacs.org.je  https://www.acas.org.uk or https://www.lra.org.uk can help.

Pregnant then screwed is a charity to support mums against pregnancy and maternity discrimination

Maternity rights helpline

Life insurance as a SAHM

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